NCL Sky Southern / Exotic Caribbean 7-14 March 2004
We chose this ship mainly because of the itinerary but also because we had sailed on the Sky before and this had probably been our best cruise to date. Exceptional service, wonderful staff and crew and a nicely laid out classy ship - no neon and glitz.
A small, but 'perfectly formed', CC group had been conversing on the boards prior to the cruise. Part of the group were in San Juan the night before and we arranged to meet in the Wyndham Old San Juan. Within minutes of the appointed time Sunnylady and her husband, SweetMelissa and her better half and Weemo (my wife) and myself were enjoying our first drinks together. We have been very fortunate on all our cruises to have met some lovely people. This cruise was to be no different. The six of us hit it off straight away. Despite having spent most of the day travelling we decided to give Barachina in the old town a quick visit and get the holiday off to a good start with one of their famous Pina Coladas. Then it was off to bed to rest for our eagerly awaited cruise.
The Wyndham Old San Juan hotel is (as the name suggests) in the old town and within walking distance of the forts and attractions of the old town. It also affords wonderful views of the port. We woke on the Sunday morning to see the Sky berthed at the Pan American peir next to the Adventurer of the Seas. Also in port was the Carnival Destiny and the Dawn Princess, both ships were to shadow us for virtually the whole of the first week. We had arranged to share a taxi with a couple of our new found friends and left for the pier just after 12 noon. Embarkation began at 1pm and was a quick and painless process. We are Latitudes members but found it to be much quicker to join the normal queue. A minor recommendation would be for NCL to look at the apportionment of check-in staff as it should be a perk to be in Latitudes. The time we were there it was a definite disadvantage to join the Latitudes queue.
Once through check-in there was the usual drink check...... I mean security checks on baggage and then we were on board. NCL have introduced sanitization stations at the security checks as you come on board as well as at the buffet stations. These appeared to be well used. Anything that helps prevent the Norwalk virus has to be a good idea. Once on board we were met by a crew member and escorted to our cabin, always a nice touch and something that was not done on our cruise on the Dawn last year. We had booked a guaranteed balcony cabin and were allocated stateroom 0202, the very front balcony cabin on deck 10 (starboard). Very handy for the pool decks, gym, spa and observation lounge. This cabin is directly below the spa and since this is not used at night there was no overhead noise. Some of the cabins on this deck do suffer from noise as they are directly below the pool deck - especially early am when the sun beds are being moved. As we had been on the Sky before, and didn't need to find our way around, we elected to start relaxing immediately, ordered a bucket of beers and sat in the sun.
Quite by chance, a short while later, we met with almost the whole group at lunch in the garden cafe. From that moment on we were all good friends and enjoyed a terrific week together (2 weeks for some of us). Any way enough of the preamble and on with the review (I have marked the various areas out of 10 to help those who may not want to read the detail):
Ship: General 9/10
Having read so much recently about the Sky on these boards and despite having sailed on her in 2001 we were prepared for a ship ready to be refurbished. We were very surprised at just how good her condition was. The atrium area was very well kept as were the restaurants, theatre and bars (in which we did spend a good amount of time). You would have to look long and hard to find any real wear and tear. The carpets in the corridors and the staterooms were probably ready to be replaced but not badly enough to be an issue. The ships exterior was also extremely well kept and like all ships we have been on was constantly being cared for by the ever attentive crew. We were completely aware of the unique situation the Sky is currently in vis-à-vis the transition to coming under the American flag and the fact the crew will be practically all American. Again we were prepared for this to be much more evident than it actually was. We were pleasantly surprised by how well the transition was being handled. Overall the staff were as good as we have experienced on any other ship. For those who maybe don't know the details, when the Sky rebrands to the Pride of Aloha the crew are required to be virtually all American. This has meant a huge exercise for NCL in recruiting staff. Especially since circumstances involving the Pride of America have meant this has had to be done much sooner than those involved had envisaged. The one exception to service levels was at dinner (more on this later). The condition of the Sky was just as good as it was when we sailed her 3 years ago.
Cabin: 0202 8/10
We don't spend a huge amount of time here so don't feel this is of huge importance although we do like having a balcony cabin. The staterooms on the Sky are fairly small but not much different to other ships we have been on. Many have written about the amenities and the space for clothes so I will not repeat the obvious. Our room stewards were great. The room was always ready for us on our return, either made up or turned down depending on the time of day. We ran out of shower gel quite early in the cruise but a post-it note left for the steward was enough to have that rectified. Clean and comfortable (except for those damn lights over the bed) what more could you want.
Dining : 7/10
Had no problems with the quality of the food. From breakfast through to dinner everything was as good as could be expected. We ordered room service a couple of times and got just what we ordered. I know others had problems getting exactly what they had ordered for breakfast. Other breakfasts were taken in the garden cafe. Typical buffet fare with a wide selection of hot and cold. Impossible to go hungry in my opinion. Lunch was also mainly taken from the garden cafe although we did eat lunch in the Seven Seas restaurant once. Again no complaints, we enjoyed the sandwich station on a few occasions as well as the hot buffet. Cakes were always plentiful. If there was one suggestion to make it would be to have more fruit available. Also please be warned the layout in the garden cafe is fairly poor. You just can't help getting in each others way. Perhaps this will be addressed when the refurb takes place.
We ate all our dinners with the exception of one in the Four Seasons restaurant, this is in the centre of the ship and is least affected by the motion. We enjoyed all the meals we had there, the food was invariably hot and very tasty. Do not miss either the lobster or the crab bisque - both excellent. Other highlights included the veal marsala and the various steaks. Even though the menus were repeated the second week there was still plenty variety. NCL beats Princess hands down, in our opinion, for dinner menus.
And now for the negatives: this was probably the worst cruise we had been on (7 in total) for service at dinner. This was where the situation regarding the training of new staff really showed. We found that there was a waiter assigned to our table with little or no back up from an assistant. On one occasion we were seated at a table with no assigned waiter, a quick word with the maitre'd solved this and a stand in was found from another restaurant. More often than not the table was not properly set when we were seated, water glasses often needed filled and at times the waiters were just stretched too much. Other minor issues were some people at the table had their plates cleared while other did not. No real big issues but it shows NCL's previous very high standards were not being met.
One evening we sat for 20 mins after having had our appetizers to be told the entree ordered had run out and would we like to reorder. When we decided not to bother and to have a cheese plate instead (it was quite late in the evening) the waiter returned having miraculously found the missing entrees. It turned out not to be the waiter's fault but a communication problem in the kitchen. Embarrassing for the waiter and the assistant maitre'd who had also become involved. On one other occasion we had to serve our own wine as the wine steward was so overwhelmed she couldn't possibly keep up with the number of tables allocated. Service was not up to the standard we have come to expect on a cruise and this was the only disappointing part of the cruise. This was more symptomatic of the situation rather than any of the individuals involved. All of whom were extremely personable and keen to do the best they could under the conditions.
How did we deal with this? We passed on our comments to the maitre'd and left it at that. Did this effect our enjoyment? Not at all. The company at dinner was always good enough to negate any disappointment with the service.
On a positive note we had the pleasure of meeting Ephrim the wine steward in the Four Seasons who after the first evening knew our names and the name of the wine we had left from the previous night. This is impressive for traditional dining but even more so in the Freestyle dining concept. We bumped into him on numerous occasions and he always greeted us by name and with a smile. It's a pity wine stewards will not be on the rebranded Sky.
I think anyone going on the Sky in the near future should be aware there are issues with the level of service in the main restaurants. You should go with the knowledge that a degree of patience and understanding may be needed. However the end result was always pretty good. It might just take a little longer than you are used to.
We also enjoyed one dinner in Ciao Ciao. Fine chinese/japanese food for a nominal charge of $10 per person. Well worth it for the service and for the opportunity to try food not available elsewhere on the ship.
PS I came back 8lbs heavier so they must have been doing something right.
Entertainment 9 ½/10
So much has been said about the Jean Ann Ryan company which supplies the entertainers for NCL ships. I do not need to add much more except the high standards and quality of entertainment continues onboard the Sky. We enjoyed the shows we saw. NCL triumph over other lines for their entertainment. We caught one of Jane L Powell's shows and enjoyed it very much. That woman has one great vocal range and is amusing with it.
We also enjoyed listening to Mark Farris who played piano in either Gatsby's or the Windjammer bars. He had a great repertoire of tunes. We especially enjoyed his tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Public Areas 9/10
We found the restaurants, bars and lounges to be in good condition and service to be very attentive (with the exception of the occasions previously mentioned in the dining room). All the staff we encountered were extremely polite and keen to do their jobs well. I think someone had written in a previous review that they had found some to be rude, eg crew members not stepping aside and letting the passengers pass. We found the opposite and always received a friendly smile from those people we got to know during the trip.
If you enjoy wine with dinner there is a wine package where you pay for 5 bottles and receive the 6th free of charge. Talking of wine James Deering hosts a very good wine tasting. Not too formal and an enjoyable and interesting talk on wine production around the world. $10 charge but $5 off any purchases.
Bar hopper cards are available at most bars. If you have a drink at 6 named bars you get a free shot glass with the liqueur of your choice. Collect 2 cards and receive a cocktail glass (real glass not plastic) with the cocktail of your choice. Collect 8 cards and you receive a free bottle of liqueur of your choice - you might have to go into training to achieve that one.
This review is long enough without going into our trips on the various islands. I will put together a short summary of these later. In the mean time here is the itinerary for our trip;
Week 1 San Juan, St Thomas, Dominica, St Lucia, Barbados, St Kitts, at sea and San Juan.
Week 2 San Juan, St Thomas, Tortola, St Maarten, Antigua, Martinique, at sea and San Juan.
We would also comment that we have found CC to be a fund of useful information. This was the first time we had met up with people from the boards and it certainly added to our enjoyment of the cruise. We had such good fun with our new found friends right from the off. Many thanks for your company, we had a blast. Hopefully we can all meet up some time soon.